Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
Sunday, August 14, 2017
Caught Between Faith and Doubt
Psalm 121, Matthew 14:22-33
One of the things that struck me as I read this story about the disciples being fearful and being caught in the storm and then Peter daring Jesus to show him that he is Jesus, is that Jesus not only talks to Peter, but grabs him. Jesus grabs hold of Peter when he is caught between faith and doubt – when he looks away for a moment and gets caught, like a deer in the headlights – doubting that he can actually walk on water – only to have Jesus reach out and grab him and give him the security that he needs to take that next step. And, Jesus does it while chiding Peter for his unbelief! Even in the midst of that unbelief, Jesus has compassion for Peter and reaches out for him.
Thinking about this leads me to wonder if you ever felt grabbed by God either physically or metaphorically. Sometimes when in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation, or one where we are in pain, are hurting deep within, God does grab us, perhaps even as we doubt God, maybe even doubting that God exists. Sometimes it is through another human being who says or does something that grabs us. Or, sometimes it is through a feeling of peace that descends upon us, which may be God grabbing hold of us as we fear sinking into the abyss.
That is what a member of our congregation recently shared with me. He told me about something that happened to him during a crisis in his life. It had happened probably 30 years ago, but in his telling of it, it seemed like it had only recently happened – the memory of it was that real to him. He didn’t tell me what the crisis was; what he did share with me was the experience he had in our sanctuary.
He was sitting there one Sunday morning, really struggling with something that had happened in his life and he said to God, “Please, just show me some sign that you exist. I need to know you are here.” He said that in that moment, he felt an incredible sense of peace descend upon him and he knew it was Jesus, reaching out to him to steady him as he fought the waves of a difficult time in his life. As he told me this story, I could tell that, even 30 years later, he can recall exactly how it felt to be held by God.
It always fascinates me when someone tells me about something that happened in their life without my prompting, which just happens to relate to what I am struggling with as I work on my sermon. To me, that, too, is God at work helping me as I try to navigate the sometimes very bumpy waters of sermon writing. When our member told me this story about his encounter with God grabbing hold of him, I was reminded of my own recent memory of being held by God.
My mother died 5 years ago, this past July. I can still remember vividly one moment at the beginning of her funeral. I was seated next to my father, whose grief was so deep and so painful, that it pained me as well. I was having a very hard time coping with my own pain and his. Pat was standing behind me, with her hand on my shoulder. I was aware of her presence, but even in that moment, it brought me little solace.
As the rabbi began the service, he read these words, first in Hebrew, and then in English: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?” Well, I found myself silently asking this same question, seeking God’s help with my pain and my grief. I suddenly felt a presence surrounding me. My tears subsided as I became aware of God’s presence in a way that I had never before felt. It started at the bottom of my spine and proceeded to go up my back. It enveloped me. I got goose bumps and felt a surge of energy surrounding me. I had been hunched over, crying but found myself sitting straight up. While the deep sadness and grief remained, I felt an incredible peace descend upon me. God’s compassion for me was beyond words.
My guess is that others in this sacred space have had experiences of God’s presence with them as well, either through a person or through a feeling from inside or outside of you.
When we realize that God has compassion for us, and accepts us as we are, we can then find ourselves being more compassionate to others. I liken this to when I hold the door for someone. I sometimes watch and find that they then hold the door for the person behind them. The transforming power of our actions can cause a ripple effect.
The same is true of our faith because our faith is not static – it continually moves and grows and challenges us and can embolden us as well. Most of us are very hard on ourselves. Maybe even sometimes we feel like we are drowning – in hatred, in jealousy, in envy, in doubt – we go inwards and beat up on ourselves. I don’t think I am the only one in this room that does this. And in those moments when we are most challenged or feeling disconnected from God, that is precisely when Jesus invites us to come out of ourselves, to take his hand and walk, to move forward to having compassion for ourselves and therefore, compassion for others.
Even in the midst of troubled waters, or perhaps especially when we are in troubled waters, we are called to step out in faith. Sometimes we step out for someone else, like when we offer prayers for those who are ill, are grieving, are hurting and are healing. We are their prayer lifeline. The trust and risk of one of us being willing to step out of our comfort zone has an effect on all of us. Stepping out in faith is not a guarantee that we will not face troubled waters or be filled with doubts and fears. But, it is always accompanied by the assurance that Jesus will not abandon us, that when we need it most, Jesus will extend his hand to us to lift us up and help us get back in the boat. But, we have to be open and willing to accept that hand.
I recently watched the movie “The Shack.” I had read the book, but was curious how it would translate into a movie. If you haven’t read “The Shack” – with its sub-title – “where tragedy meets eternity” or seen the movie, I will not spoil it for you. I will just give you the basic information surrounding Mack, the main character, who has an experience of fear in a boat.
Mack is trying to resolve in his head and heart, a number of difficult life events. In the story, he finds himself face to face with the Trinity, unlike any depiction of God, Christ and Spirit I have ever come across, which is one of the aspects of this book that has made it so controversial. In one scene, Mack is on a pristine lake in a boat and starts thinking about the difficult events of his life. Suddenly, the boat starts sinking into the water that has become filled with sludge. This sludge is a metaphor for what is inside of Mack. He has carried around terrible memories from his childhood and adulthood that continue to haunt and disturb him. The sludge represents his own inner loathing as well as his anger with God, because he believes that God allowed the things that happened both to him and to those he loves.
The boat he is in begins to break apart underneath of him. He is gasping in fright. In the midst of his terror, he hears the voice of Jesus, saying, “Mack! Mack, it’s okay.”
Mack looks up and sees Jesus walking to him on the water and says: “Why are you doing this to me?”
Jesus says to him: “This isn’t me. Mack, this is happening inside you. You’re letting it consume you and you don’t have to.”
Mack continues to focus on the painful images from his past as he looks at the sludgy water, which is now rapidly filling the boat. He is horrified.
Jesus continues to walk on the water toward Mack and says: “Mack! Look here! Don’t think about the past. Don’t think about the pain. Look at me. Everything is gonna be okay.”
Mack looks down one more time as the stern of his boat sinks beneath the water. He looks back at Jesus and stares at him while the boat continues to sink and he is almost underwater.
Jesus, locking into his gaze, says: “None of this can hurt you. Trust me.”
Mack keeps his eyes on Jesus. Suddenly, he is transformed and is once again sitting in the rowboat in the middle of a clear lake. Jesus continues to walk across the water toward him, reaching out his hand… (Sounds similar to our reading this morning, doesn’t it!)
While this is a dramatic depiction of a fictional book and movie, it reminds us that Jesus will not let us go. Jesus will not give up on us. He grabs hold of us when we falter. It would be easy for any of us to keep looking back, to keep focusing on what we perceive as our failures, our shortcomings. But, God sometimes takes what we perceive as our failures and our shortcomings and turns them into positives, thereby not giving up on us, but helping us to use all that we are to help others. God’s compassion for us is beyond our comprehension. And, it is up to us to choose to accept that compassion and to reach beyond ourselves, offering compassion to others when they are caught between faith and doubt.
Doubts do take hold of all of us. But when we can focus on the power of God’s love, God’s acceptance of each one of us, as we are and for all that we are, we can do amazing things, especially as we seek to be as compassionate to others, as God is compassionate to us. God’s compassion and faithfulness to us will never ever end.